Technology should leave us more free time, but we’re more impatient than ever. Is there a solution?
You needn’t spend long in a city where the honking of car horns is out of control – New York or Delhi, say – before you notice something: in practical terms, almost every honk is pointless. Every driver is stuck in the same traffic, with the same desire to make progress and the same inability to do so. Surely no honker believes their honk will make the critical difference and get things moving; honking simply provides drivers with brief cathartic relief from their fury that things aren’t moving faster. This is the modern epidemic of impatience in a pure form. You want reality to be one way, but it stubbornly insists on being the other way, so you make a loud noise to express your anger – thereby ensuring everyone in earshot is annoyed, so at least you don’t have to feel so alone.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Faster: The Acceleration Of Just About Everything, by the science writer James Gleick, which first introduced me to a truth that has grown truer in the decades since: the faster life moves, the worse impatience gets. Rationally, it shouldn’t be that way. In a world of dishwashers and jet engines, time ought to feel more expansive, thanks to all the hours freed up for more meaningful matters. But, of course, that’s not how it feels. Instead, we grow more agitated with even the smallest delay. As the speed with which we feel our desires ought to be gratified tends toward zero, every wait becomes an affront. If you knew a journey would take for ever – because you were a medieval cattle drover or a passenger on a 19th-century transatlantic steamship, maybe – you wouldn’t mind so much. It’s because cars can move so fast that it’s annoying when they don’t.